Today is the secular new year. In Israel, fittingly but quite strange for me, they say “shanah tovah”, the typical Jewish greeting for Rosh Hashanah- the Jewish New Year. It’s a fun night of celebration and also a chance to think of what’s ahead.
For me, this week marks my 6 month anniversary of arriving in Israel. I’ve learned so much in such a little amount of time. I’ve visited over 35 cities. I’ve been to Hasidic dance parties, Mizrachi concerts, dabke dancing, Israeli folk dancing, Yiddish theater, a Russian puppet show, and a Yemenite concert. I’ve eaten Bukharian, Moroccan, Persian, Ashkenazi, Romanian, Druze, Arab, Kavkazi, Georgian, Indian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Eritrean, Filipino, and so many other types of food. I’ve davvened with Haredim, Reform Jews, Chabad, and hippie vegan Jews. I visited a Druze shrine and a Karaite synagogue. I got to watch Islamic prayer up close and personal in a mosque and I went to an LGBT Orthodox Torah study group.
Not bad for the half year mark! I’m quite proud of all my accomplishments- moving across the ocean alone, making friends, finding an apartment, adjusting to a new culture, and using all nine of my languages and starting to add Greek!
There has been a lot of stress along the way. Israel is an extraordinarily hard place to live- or so say Sabras who grew up here. And while sometimes they exaggerate because whining here is kind of a national sport (and they don’t know much about the challenges faced by people elsewhere), the truth is in many ways they’re right. And it’s all the more difficult for someone like me who moved here at 31 without an extensive support network.
What’s hardest about life in Israel is also the source of my New Year’s resolution. The hardest part of life in Israel is the people. More specifically, the intense and mean-spirited prejudice I experience on almost a daily basis. Towards me as an American and towards other cultures- especially within Israel. Don’t get me wrong- there are some fantastic people here, who mostly join me in complaining about the awful ones. But boy- there is a mean streak to Israeli culture that I haven’t seen elsewhere in the world. It’s not because I haven’t seen prejudice elsewhere- I’ve experienced it in places like Spain (anti-Semitism), Argentina (homophobia), and the U.S. (all of the above).
The difference in Israel is the intensity and the degree to which many people here celebrate judging others. I’m someone who deeply values multiculturalism. I’m well aware that there are limits to it and questions about how far it should extend. But the basic principle of respecting- at times embracing- parts of every culture to me is second nature and a fundamental way I live in the world. The good news is Israel is chock full of interesting cultures. Sadly, that most Israelis know nothing about- and don’t care to appreciate. While some Israelis are curious about Berlin or America, few are particularly curious about their neighbors who look or talk differently from them. Let alone their own roots.
The truth is when the State of Israel was being built, its founders despised (and that is not too strong a word) multiculturalism. Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic- these languages were vigorously and shamefully repressed by the state. Kids grew up with shame about their roots. And sadly some 2,000 year old beautiful Jewish cultures are going extinct as a result.
The un-rootedness of many Sabras fosters insecurity and prejudice towards those who maintain their heritage. Just ask many a Sabra what they think of French Jews or Russians who continue to speak their languages here.
There has been somewhat of a resurgence in interest in cultural diversity, but it needs to be nourished. And that’s where I- and you- come in. There are Israelis like me who are proud of our origins. There are Israelis- I’ve met them- who realize you can speak fluent Hebrew and still maintain (or re-learn) your French or Russian or Arabic or Romanian. There are many who don’t realize that because they’ve been trained to revile the Diaspora. And that’s very sad.
But in the end, I believe in multiculturalism and I’m convinced there are some people here who are ready to join me in this movement. I want to celebrate the incredible cultural richness here- of Jews, of Arabs, of refugees, of everyone. It is a gift that must be cherished to be protected.
It is no longer acceptable to me that when I tell my Sabra friends that I met Aramaic-speaking Christians or Samaritans who speak Ancient Hebrew or Eritreans with an awesome juice bar that their reaction is: “wow I didn’t know that was there- you’ve seen more here in 6 months than I’ve seen in a lifetime!”
Bullshit. Time to get off your hummus-filled tuchus and get to know the richness of your country. No- not the high-tech. The cultural treasures right underneath your nose waiting to be discovered.
It’s time to leave behind the old-fashioned Zionist concept of the “effeminate”, “decadent”, “overly pious”, “cosmopolitan”, “weak” Diaspora Jew. It’s 2018, time for a change. It’s time to realize the “Diaspora” is The World. And lucky for us, a whole bunch of people from all over the world have made this country their home.
Now it’s time to realize that if we understand where we came from, our cultures, our heritage- it doesn’t negate our Israeli identity. It thoroughly enriches it. Just like my delicious cover photo of Pringles, Russian sweets, Korean seaweed, and Israeli Bissli that co-exist at my neighborhood store. Pluralism that begins with culture can increase respect between all sectors of society. And instead of Jew hating Arab hating Zionist Orthodox hating Haredi hating Secular hating Mizrachi hating Ashkenazi- maybe, just maybe, we build just a little bit more understanding and a lot less hate.
Ken yehi ratzon – may it be God’s will. Inshallah. Ojalá. Mirtsashem.
Let’s do this y’all. 🙂